July 16, 2007

Putting the kibosh on sponsored WordPress themes

Author: Shirl Kennedy

Matt Mullenweg, the founding developer of the ultra-popular open source WordPress blogging platform, has issued a blunt edict that "all sponsored themes should be removed from themes.wordpress.net" before the WordCamp conference beginning on July 21, a decree that has met with widespread approval in the WordPress community.

In directly related news, on July 10, Mark Ghosh announced that sponsored themes would no longer be promoted on the popular WeblogToolsCollection blog. He cited a previous post in which he discussed the issue at some length after viewing "a post on a theme blog" that "left a really, really bad taste in my mouth." In brief, the theme's author stated that he was auctioning off two sponsored links in the footer of the theme and that anyone downloading and using the theme would be required to retain these links.

Says Ghosh, in response to this post:

When you download a sponsored theme and install it on your Wordpress blog, the sponsor is not only enjoying the increased visual exposure through the link at the bottom of your blog, they are also leeching off the Google PageRank of your blog. However, you as a theme user may choose to use a sponsored theme and choose to leave the link at the bottom of your page alone since that completely depends on personal tastes and choices.

Sponsored links? If you don't know, you can probably guess what's involved here. It's explained well on the Sassy Lawyer blog:

It was bound to happen. The SEO (search engine optimization) 'experts' saw how the page ranks of web design sites shot up as a result of footer links in free Wordpress themes and realized an opportunity to exploit the situation in favor of their paying clients. For the clients, it's virtually free advertising. Instead of paying individual sites to host their link ads, all they need to pay is the web designer, have him install footer links to their business sites and make a public release of his free Wordpress theme, and presto! The business gets free advertising in the blog of every Wordpress user who chooses that theme.

Hundreds of themes are currently available for WordPress. if you can't find one that appeals to your finicky tastes, or you want to give your blog its own unique look and feel, you are free to create your own. But if it contains sponsored links, it isn't welcome in the WordPress theme viewer and it won't show up on WeblogToolsCollection.

This is hardly a new WordPress issue. But reached the tipping point last April when Mullenweg, in a detailed post on the Weblog Tools Collection blog, explained the issue at length and requested that the WordPress community vote on whether sponsored themes should be excluded from WordPress.org. In his post, Mullenweg explained the concept behind sponsored themes and concluded, "Our design and theme community thrived before themes with embedded ads came along, and it will continue to thrive long after their gone. Embedding ads in themes is disrespectful to users, and creates confusion and uncertainty about which themes people can trust."

Lest you think this is a tempest in a teapot, you should be aware that sponsored WordPress themes have grown into a viable business model and income generator for marketers, bloggers and theme creators.

So as you might expect, emotions are running high on both sides of this issue. As a blogging platform, WordPress really began to surge in popularity back in 2004, when Six Apart changed its licensing terms for its Movable Type platform, which resulted in an exodus of users to Wordpress. No other blogging platform offers such a wide range of themes that are user-friendly in the extreme to download and implement. You can easily change the appearance of your blog on a daily basis for a year if you were so inclined.

But if you want a sponsored theme, you'll now have to look for it somewhere other than the WordPress themeviewer or WeblogToolsCollection.


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